Reconstruction Disaster Planning in the US Research Paper

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Reconstruction disaster planning includes plans prepared specifically to guide reconstruction following disasters, plans prepared to mitigate losses from hazards through actions taken prior to the onset of disasters, and hazard-mitigation elements of more general urban and regional comprehensive plans. Although the content of each type of plan differs, the critical components and key features of the planning process are similar. In this research paper, the basic elements of reconstruction disaster plans and the processes involved in preparing them are described.

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1. The Problem

World-wide, the risks from natural and related technological hazards has been increasing at an accelerating pace. Population growth and migration toward at-risk areas, increased development and urbanization of hazard zones, long-term climactic trends, and other factors have combined to expose populations to losses of life and property. Although improved forecasting and warning systems have generally reduced the number of fatalities associated with disasters, particularly in developed countries, annual monetary losses everywhere are staggering.

This problem is particularly severe in the United States, where losses of property and income attributed to natural hazards are estimated at $500 million per week (Mileti 1999). Large disasters, such as Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the Midwest floods of 1993, and the Northridge earthquake of 1994 have resulted in damages ranging from $15 to $44 billion (Board on Natural Disasters 1999). Worst case scenarios suggest that much larger disasters are probable. A $200 billion earthquake in California and a $50 billion hurricane in Florida are distinct possibilities. In the face of this large and growing exposure to economic loss, policy makers are slowly coming to realize that urban planning may be an effective way to foster greater resilience to natural disasters.

2. Evolution Of Planning For Resilience

Throughout history, communities have been located so as to limit the potential for disaster and after disasters, governments have sought to rebuild in ways to reduce the likelihood of future catastrophes. Italian hill towns, for example, were located on high ground to avoid flooding and diseases such as malaria that were prevalent on the valley floors. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Charles II issued a proclamation that called for rebuilding in ways that would reduce the potential for future disasters. In more recent times, however, the lessons of the past were forgotten. After the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, for example, the city was quickly rebuilt with little attention to hazard mitigation. In fact, some of the largest losses in the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 occurred in the Marina District, which is located on debris pushed into the bay after the 1906 disaster.

Modern thinking about planning for resilience to hazards can be traced to the geographer Gilbert White, who first proposed the concept in 1936 in an article in the Planners Journal (1936). White’s ideas were not acted upon until twenty years later, when the Tennessee Valley Authority prepared a flood-plain management plan for Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia in 1956. However, because few communities followed the TVA lead, state governments, beginning with California in 1972, began to require that local governments incorporate hazard mitigation provisions in their comprehensive planning. At last count, half of the states mention natural hazards in their planning enabling statutes, and eleven states, like California, actually mandate local government planning for the mitigation of natural hazards (Schwab et al. 1998).

Plans that address natural hazards take two forms. Post-disaster reconstruction and recovery plans focus on policies and actions to bring about rapid recovery from a disaster and to guide reconstruction of damaged structures and infrastructure to increase resilience to future disasters. Hazard mitigation plans focus on policies and actions that can prevent damage and loss of life before disasters occur. Each type of plan may be formulated as a stand-alone plan or as an element of a broader comprehensive plan, but the latter approach is probably best, since it embeds hazard mitigation in regular planning processes that have legal standing.

3. Post-Disaster Reconstruction And Recovery Plans

The post-disaster period creates a window of opportunity to make changes that can improve resilience to future disasters and accomplish a number of other community goals. But, these opportunities are often lost due to the need to make decisions quickly in an atmosphere of confusion and strong political pressures to return quickly to normalcy. Post-disaster reconstruction and recovery plans provide a means to ensure that reconstruction occurs in ways that contribute to long-term sustainability. These plans focus on decisions, made in the short-term recovery period after a disaster, that have long-term repercussions. Schwab and his associates (1998) call attention to four groups of decisions that are particularly important to address in plans: (1) sites for temporary housing, relocation of damaged businesses, and dumping of debris; (2) closure of roads and bridges; (3) restoration or relocation of critical infrastructure; and (4) reconstruction or relocation of dwelling units and nonconforming uses that have suffered substantial damage. In addition, the plan should clarify roles and responsibilities in recovery, identify potential sources of financing, and minimize wasteful and conflicting efforts (Mileti 1999).

Experts such as Mileti (1999) and Schwab (1998) argue that post-disaster recovery and reconstruction plans will be most effective if they are prepared in accordance with the following principles. Consensus building through community involvement should be sought to avoid community conflict over reconstruction strategies. Information should be provided about the hazard, exposed populations, buildings, and infra- structure, resources available for recovery after the disaster, and governmental powers and programs to aid recovery. Organization should be addressed through identification of topic-specific groups that can be put in place immediately after a disaster (in particular, designation of an official rebuilding restoration group is critical). Procedures should vary as little as possible from those followed during predisaster periods, although permitting and code-review procedures should be streamlined in order to expedite rebuilding. Damage Evaluation protocols should be in place, such as protocols for damage assessment by building inspectors and standards for post-disaster repair and construction. Finances for reconstruction should be identified including funding from both governmental and private sources. Finally, provision should be made to adjust the local government’s planning style so that more flexible and cooperative procedures replace the formal, deliberative ruleoriented procedures that characterize pre-disaster decision-making.

4. Hazard Mitigation Plans

The American Planning Association recommends in its Growing Smart Legislati e Guidebook (1998) that local government comprehensive plans include an element on hazard mitigation. A number of states (e.g., California, Florida, North Carolina for coastal areas) not only recommend this, they require it of every community (see Burby et al. 1997). Through a comprehensive plan’s safety element, hazard mitigation is addressed directly and hazard considerations are also included in portions of the plan dealing with housing, transportation, protection of environmentally sensitive areas, natural resource protection, and capital improvements. Hazard mitigation plans, as stand-alone documents, also have been prepared to address a variety of hazards. In either case, the preparation of a plan involves similar steps.

The first step is to secure a resolution by the local governing body to put someone in charge of the planning effort and to establish a planning committee or task force. Official sanction for the planning process is essential to obtain the participation of other agencies and to tap into their resources and expertise. Participating agencies should include planning community development, engineering public works, finance, public safety (police, fire, emergency management), code enforcement, parks and recreation, public information, and a representative of the governing board.

One of the planning group’s first jobs is to build a constituency for hazard mitigation and consensus about the need to take action. The lack of such a constituency, coupled with local officials’ own lack of concern about hazards, has resulted in minimal attention to hazards in past planning (e.g., Burby 1998, Mileti 1999, Platt 1999). This is best accomplished by involving key stakeholders in the planning process from the beginning. The public involvement effort should target people and/organizations exposed to hazards, neighborhood and civic organizations, the business community, managers of critical facilities, land developers and others whose decisions affect urban development. In addition to gaining support for the planning effort, citizen involvement helps secure local knowledge about hazards, insures that information gathered in the planning process is relevant to issues citizens view as important, and helps to prevent misunderstandings and gain consensus for the plan’s recommendations.

The next step in the planning process is to develop information about the problems hazards pose and the capacity of the community to build resilience to hazards. Hazard assessment includes identifying hazards (magnitude, severity, frequency, and causative factors) and mapping the areas of a community that are exposed to them. Losses experienced in past disasters are identified, and vulnerability to loss in future disasters is estimated by examining potential property damages in hazard events of various magnitudes.

Analysis of capacity helps in identifying hazard reduction measures that are feasible for a community and actions that are needed to increase capacity, such as adding staff with hazards expertise or developing dedicated revenue sources to fund mitigation. Other topics for capacity analysis include funding sources, legal authority for hazard mitigation actions, and evaluation of hazard mitigation measures that are already in use. The hazard assessment and capacity analysis lead to a statement of the problem facing the community and formulation of goals and objectives. It can be combined with a visioning process to develop, in collaboration with citizens and policy makers, an image of what a hazard resilient community would look like in the future. Visioning can help develop consensus about the goals of hazard mitigation and can be useful in tying hazard mitigation to other community concerns such as economic development and environmental protection.

Once the problem is understood and a vision of a hazard resilient community is agreed upon, preparation of the hazard mitigation plan involves making choices among possible strategies to build resilience. Six sets of possible measures should be reviewed.

(a) Preventive policies and actions are designed to limit the exposure of new development to losses from hazards (e.g., building code standards, zoning, and land acquisition).

(b) Property protection policies and actions limit the exposure of existing development to hazards on a parcel-by-parcel basis (e.g., retrofitting, relocation, acquisition and clearance, and insurance).

(c) Structural protection policies and actions limit the exposure of existing development to hazards (principally flooding) on an area-wide basis (e.g., flood control dams, levees, sea walls, and channel modifications).

(d) Emergency Services policies and actions lessen the impact of a hazard after its onset (e.g., warning, evacuation, flood fighting, fire fighting, and emergency sheltering).

(e) Natural resource protection policies and actions preserve and restore natural areas that also help lessen the magnitude of hazards (e.g., wetland protection, erosion and sedimentation control, and sand dune protection).

(f ) Public information policies and actions build awareness of hazards and knowledge of individual actions to mitigate them (e.g., hazard maps, library resources, and technical assistance).

The strategies that have been identified as useful in creating a sustainable community that is resilient to hazards are evaluated in terms of their effectiveness, efficiency, equity, and feasibility (administrative, technical, financial, legal, and political). The goal is to formulate a program that draws wide support, addresses existing problems from hazards, and also prevents new ones from developing. The final plan includes, at a minimum, five components. These include

(a) a description of how the plan was prepared and who participated in its preparation,

(b) an assessment of hazards facing the community,

(c) the vision of a hazard-resilient community,

(d) recommendations of policies and actions, and

(e) identification when they will be undertaken, who is to undertake them, how they will be financed, and who will monitor performance (see Wetmore and Jamieson 1999).

5. Conclusion

The preparation of a post-disaster-reconstruction hazard-mitigation plan provides the technical analysis, coordination among governmental agencies, and community involvement and consensus building necessary to increase resilience to natural and related technological hazards. Communities with coherent plans are able to build human settlements that are resistant to disasters and able to recover from disasters quickly. The plan-making processes and principles discussed in this research paper are proven to be effective. But state and local governments have been slow to prepare and adopt the needed plans. The challenge for governments at every level is to act on the knowledge that is available to reduce or even reverse the steady rise in destruction and human suffering from disasters.


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